July 28, 2005

MTV, The New AARP

By: AFF Editors

No age group is more favorably disposed to Social Security personal accounts than young voters. Rock the Vote professes to represent the interests of young voters. So why does Rock the Vote try to dissuade young voters from supporting personal accounts?

No advocacy group has done more to dissuade young people from personal accounts than Rock the Vote. Their talking points and arguments could be mistaken for AARP briefs. Which makes sense, because when it comes to Social Security, Rock the Vote is now working with the country’s most powerful lobby for the elderly.

To get a read on Rock the Vote’s thinking, DOUBLETHINK asked the group’s Washington director, Hans Riemer, a simple question: In light of the demographics and opinion data, shouldn’t Rock the Vote be in favor of personal accounts, or at least be open to them?

No way, says Riemer. You see, privatization is all one big scam. “Young people have been lied to by advocates of privatization and some politicians into thinking that there is going to be nothing there [when they retire] so they’ll go along with a bad deal,” he says. Social Security is “100-percent funded” for 40-50 years. Would he at least be open to allowing somebody from the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation to offer a rebuttal to their website? After all, Rock the Vote is technically a nonpartisan organization.

“We don’t feel any particular obligation to allow them to misinform our people,” he said.

Which is ironic, to say the least, since Rock the Vote was originally all about free expression. Now, apparently, it’s taken to enlightening the young masses and advocating policies they clearly don’t agree with.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Founded in 1990 with the sponsorship of MTV, Rock the Vote was created “in response to a wave of attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression.” Generation Xers might remember what happened. This guy named Al Gore was involved. Registered as a 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 not-for-profit corporation, it has nine full-time employees and a $2 million budget, which grows during election years. Its cachet derives from its supposed credibility with those young first-time voters both parties pant for. A reported 20.9 million people aged 18-29 voted in the 2004 presidential election.

Rock the Vote presents itself not only as nonpartisan, but non-ideological, too, with a focus on voter registration and other youth-related issues. But in fact Rock the Vote is left wing, whether or not the young voters they claim to represent on a given issue are also left wing. In fact, as it is now demonstrating on Social Security, Rock the Vote is sufficiently liberal that it will campaign against young voters’ wishes to save and invest in personal accounts, if such wishes happen to conflict with reigning liberal doctrine.

That’s not surprising if you know who runs Rock the Vote and where they come from. Riemer, for instance, was a senior policy analyst at the Campaign for America’s Future before he joined Rock the Vote in 2003. CAF is a liberal activist group that counts George Soros among its biggest fans. Soros gave them $300,000 in the 2004 election cycle. As it happens, Riemer ran CFA’s Social Security project, and regularly attacked President Bush’s first-term efforts to create personal accounts. Sometimes he and CAF did so in pretty, uh, suggestive language. As part of a press release Reimer put out for CAF in July of 2002 puts it:

“Telling young people that they will never get anything from Social Security may trick them into supporting a scheme that would take away 40 percent of what they are entitled to by law. But it is not right — especially for the office of the President.

“With this statement, the White House has climbed into bed with the Cato Institute and turned off the lights.” Riemer clearly doesn’t mind appearing to be a liberal. That’s probably because he is a liberal. Along with his fighting Social Security, Riemer supports our-side activism of the broadest partisan kind. Riemer has donated $500 to 21st Century Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This small, Washington-based group is a political action committee devoted to building “the Democratic farm team by electing progressive candidates to all levels of government.”

He is, however, touchy on the subject. When asked about his donations, he replied, via email, “Jeez, what does that have to do with anything?”

Riemer is not the only one at Rock the Vote with a background in liberal activism. Rock the Vote president Jehmu Greene used to be director of women’s outreach at the Democratic National Committee. She is currently one of the board members for the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

MTV maintains its ties to Rock the Vote as well. CEO Judy McGrath, a big donor to Democrats, is on the board of directors. She gave Democrats and groups like Emily’s List and America Coming Together more than $33,000 in the last election cycle. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rock the Vote is clearly rife with liberal Democrats.

Rock the Vote officials are at pains to emphasize they work with both sides. They appeared at the Republicans’ New York City convention in 2004, for instance, as they did at the Democrats’ bash in Boston. They tout such events as proof of their independence. Indeed, such appearances do suggest a modicum of openness to the other side. But no more than a modicum.

Looking at its recent history one finds one instance after another when Rock the Vote promoted leftist demagoguery and none when it sounded the least bit Republican or conservative.

Take the draft, for instance. In election 2004 Rock the Vote helped spread spurious rumors that the draft was a real possibility, stirring up fears that the war on terror would bring it back. The rumors emanated from Democratic opinion shops and from Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and Tom Harkin. Indeed, by November, Democrats had all but dropped it. The issue has gotten scant attention since its electoral utility ended. But the draft was one of Rock the Vote’s major issues in 2004. It was a big headache for the GOP.

“They pushed it and got both Bush and Kerry to talk on the record about it,” said a Democratic National Committee college organizer who credits Rock the Vote with getting it on the agenda. Before that, it was getting hardly any play.

Rock the Vote even sent out bogus personalized draft cards to the more than one million people on its e-mail list. “You Have Been Drafted,” it declared in bold letters. Much smaller print revealed the card was a stunt.

The rumors grew so widespread that Francisco Zambrano, a 20-year-old kid in New Haven, Conn., actually paid a friend $100 last July to shoot him in the leg to avoid being called up. He wasn’t in the reserves or anything like that, but nonetheless told police he was afraid of being sent to Iraq. Before that, the rumors were getting hardly any play. Riemer admitted at the time the e-mails were “provocative” but said there was no intention to deceive. The Republican National Committee didn’t agree.

“Your organization is sponsoring and promoting a false and misleading Internet campaign designed to scare youth into believing that they may be drafted,” said then-RNC chief Ed Gillespie in an October 13, 2004, letter.

Gillespie threatened to challenge Rock the Vote’s tax-exempt status, which requires them to be nonpartisan, if they didn’t.

It’s not just the RNC that objects to Rock the Vote’s evident partisanship. A California College Republican group staged a protest last October at MTV’s Santa Monica headquarters. They shouted slogans like “Pimp my ride, not my vote” and “Total Request Lies.”

“The draft scare has credibility because of MTV,” Michael Davidson, chairman of California College Republicans, told Billboard magazine. Jehmu Greene shot back, accusing the RNC of attempting to censor the group. She added that a draft was indeed likely: “Just because President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary Rumsfeld, and for that matter Senator Kerry, say that there is not going to be a draft does not make it so. Just because Congress holds a transparently phony vote against the draft does not mean there isn’t going to be one,” she wrote in a public letter to the RNC. What might be considered proof that there isn’t going to be a draft, she didn’t say.

Rock the Vote’s campaign had some educational value, to be sure. It probably spurred some young people into thinking about military duty and its requirements when they otherwise wouldn’t have. Rock the Vote also put links on its site to debunk some of the wilder draft-related rumors. But it kept up, and still maintains, a steady drumbeat warning of a draft.

LEFT FROM THE BEGINNING

Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group, scoffs at the notion that Rock the Vote is independent. Voter registration, she concedes, is a “worthwhile” cause. “But for them to pretend that they have no political preferences is absurd.”

Ben Hubbard, co-founder of Campus Progress, a project of the left-wing think tank the Center for American Progress, agrees, at least on the Social Security issue. “They would definitely be on the progressive side of this,” he says, adding later that “Rock the Vote is leading the way.”

Off the record and on background, Democrats agree. Hubbard argues there is no contradiction here because young voters are usually more liberal than their parents. This is generally true, though not by much. John Kerry beat George W. Bush 54 to 45 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds in the 2004 election, according to a CNN exit poll.

Asked point blank if Rock the Vote is a liberal group, Riemer demurs.

“We don’t really jibe with labels,” he says. “Our focus is on youth issues and youth culture . . . young people are independent and we are too.”

YOUNG FARTS

Representing youth culture has led Rock the Vote in some strange directions, like doing joint push polls with the AARP. As if to illustrate its contempt for what actual young people think about Social Security reform, Rock the Vote all but buried results of its own poll that made clear the group was on the wrong side. Conducted in February with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the poll found that 68 percent of young voters favored investing some of their “payroll taxes (into) the stock market through individual retirement accounts.”

You wouldn’t have known this from reading Rock the Vote’s press release, however. “Poll of young adults finds support for personal accounts plummets in the face of benefit cuts, borrowing,” the headline blared. Incredibly, it focused solely on the poll’s other, almost comically leading, questions.

For example: “If it meant that cuts to your guaranteed Social Security benefits would be so severe that you could not make up the difference with money earned from your personal account, would you still favor” personal accounts? The obvious rejoinder is that few or none would favor it in such a case. But yet 35 percent of those polled still said yes.

More than half who favored personal accounts, 54 percent, stuck with the accounts even if they would receive “a lower guaranteed Social Security benefit.” Another 63 percent still favored them even if it meant personal accounts would “create losers as well as winners.”

It’s also worth pointing out that the poll’s definition of a “young voter” was somebody aged 18-39. In most other cases, Rock the Vote has defined youth voters as people aged 18-29. Including so many 30-something voters probably skewed the poll’s results to the negative.

Several conservatives cried foul. “Why not just ask us if we would prefer . . . to eat cat food in our retirement?” asked the Heritage Foundation’s Rea Hederman Jr. Campus Progress’s Hubbard sees the polling differently: “It shows that they (young voters) don’t really understand the issue,” he says. The poll was only one part of Rock the Vote’s wide-ranging attack on personal accounts. Its website warns, “investments are a gamble. A system that depends on good luck and bad luck can’t provide a safety net guarantee.”

One mostly finds more of the same on Rock the Vote’s blog, like a February 24 entry praising Howard Dean for vowing “opposition to any plan that would end Social Security as we know it.” As a March 28 entry put it, “All the cool kids oppose privatization.” If all that’s not enough, you can even buy “I (heart) Social Security” T-shirts. They’re just a click away from the official Rock the Vote thong underwear.

Give ’em credit, though, since their efforts do appear to be having an effect. A March Pew poll found that young voter support for personal accounts has dipped, though a majority still favor them.

Riemer defends the attacks on personal accounts. The proposed changes are “really horrible,” he says, since the benefit cuts would be too high. Besides, he says, there’s no crisis.

“The young people who are more informed are more opposed,” he said.

He was, however, perturbed enough by the questions he got in the interview for this article to send the following e-mail afterward: “Given the tenor of our conversation, I hope that you will consider a quote along the following. “‘We registered more young Bush voters in 2004 than the College Republican Committee.'” Will do, Hans.

Really, though, why should he be worried? Nothing that Rock the Vote has done, as far as DOUBLETHINK can tell, is improper or even particularly unusual for Washington.

There aren’t enough lampposts in the capital to hang every person whose supposedly independent group really works mainly for one side, right or left. That is the way the game is played.

Nonprofit status may require you to be nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean nonideological. Rock the Vote can hire whomever it likes. It can push for whatever position it wants. But it ought to at least be honest about it.

Maybe that is what worries Riemer. As an independent, youth-oriented group, Rock the Vote is cool, hip, and in demand. Being just another left-wing advocacy group? Dude, don’t even go there.

Sean Higgins is a reporter for Investors Business Daily.